A war of words has erupted between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. It began with Banerjee accusing the AIMIM of taking money from the BJP. At a public meeting in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar on 18 November, Banerjee said:
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Cooch Behar: Extremism is coming out among the minorities, just as there are extremists among the Hindus. There is a political party and they are taking money from the BJP, they are from Hyderabad, not from West Bengal. (18.11.19) pic.twitter.com/cImWHdGc6o— ANI (@ANI) November 19, 2019
Even though she didn’t mention the AIMIM by name, it was clear that she was referring to the Hyderabad MP’s party.
Not one to take attacks lying down, Owaisi retaliated by accusing Mamata of keeping Bengal’s Muslims backward.
What is extremism? Extremism is when you don't empower the Muslims, give them their rightful share, education and reservations, don't allow a political leadership to emerge. Mamta Banerjee is practicing this extremism. - @asadowaisi pic.twitter.com/ufXgqnqUn0— AIMIM (@aimim_national) November 19, 2019
Countering the “taking money from BJP” allegation, Owaisi accused Banerjee of aiding the rise of the BJP in West Bengal.
Power has made Mamta Banerjee and her party TMC arrogant. Despite Muslims voting for the TMC, BJP won 18 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal. So, which extremism won? Perhaps, she should do an introspection. - @asadowaisi pic.twitter.com/S83drfg6BY— AIMIM (@aimim_national) November 19, 2019
Continuing with the AIMIM’s offensive, the party’s Uttar Pradesh Unit Chief Syed Asim Waqar, who is also officiating as the head of its West Bengal Unit, tweeted a picture of Banerjee with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This is from the time when the Trinamool Congress was an ally of the BJP.
The question here is: Why is Banerjee engaging in a tussle with a party that is yet to contest an election in West Bengal?
There are three elements to this:
- BJP’s rise in West Bengal
- TMC’s critical dependence on Muslim votes
- AIMIM’s recent victory in Kishanganj
Let’s look at these factors one by one.
BJP Catches Up With TMC
Even though Jan Sangh Founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee hailed from Bengal, the party and its later avatar – BJP – remained a marginal player in the state. This changed in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, with the party getting 17 percent of the votes.
At that time, the TMC was on a high, having uprooted the over two-decade long Left Front rule in 2011. Naturally, there was no way the BJP could challenge the TMC. But the party began occupying the anti-TMC space, growing at the expense of the Left.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got 40.7 percent votes.
This was just three percentage points behind the TMC. This explains the TMC’s nervousness vis-a-vis the AIMIM. Any shift of Muslim votes to the AIMIM could enable the BJP to close the gap or even take a lead over the TMC in the state.
TMC’s Critical Dependence on Muslims
The BJP’s rise in 2019 was the result of a large-scale shift of Hindu votes from the Left and the TMC to the saffron party. According to the Lokniti-CSDS survey, the BJP got 57 percent of the Hindu votes, an increase of 36 percentage points from 2014.
The BJP had a healthy lead over TMC among Hindus across caste lines and among Adivasis as well. However, the TMC still won 22 seats, 4 more than the BJP, mainly due to the support of Muslims.
The Quint used the data provided by the CSDS survey as well as the 2011 Census to estimate the community-wise share within TMC voters.
According to this estimate, Muslims may have accounted for a whopping 44 percent of all TMC voters.
This shows how deeply Mamata Banerjee’s prospect of winning a third term as West Bengal chief minister is tied to the consolidation of Muslim votes.
TMC insiders say that the 2021 Assembly polls won’t be as bad as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as many voters who chose BJP due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity may shift to the TMC as Banerjee is the tallest leader in the state.
The BJP, however, fancies its chances of expanding among Hindu voters even further.
In either case, it becomes essential for the TMC to hold on to its support among Muslims.
Muslims account for 27.5 percent of West Bengal’s population, according to the 2011 Census. The CSDS survey estimates that in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, as many as 70 percent of West Bengal’s Muslims voted for the TMC, followed by 12 percent for the Congress, 10 percent for the Left and 4 percent for the BJP.
As compared to 2014, this was a huge increase of 30 percentage points for the TMC. It came largely at the expense of the Left, whose popularity among Muslims fell by 21 percentage points and Congress, whose supported among the community halved.
It was this 30 percentage point swing among Muslims that saved the TMC, which has suffered a loss of around 8 percentage points among Hindus in the last five years. By attacking the AIMIM, Mamata isn’t just trying to prevent a shift of Muslim votes, she is also trying to counter the BJP’s allegation of Muslim appeasement and win back some Hindu votes.
AIMIM’s Win in Kishanganj
The TMC was confident that it could maintain its hold over Muslim votes as neither the Congress nor the Left is in any position to counter it. But recently, a new challenger has emerged for the party: the AIMIM.
Last month, the AIMIM won a crucial bye-election in the Kishanganj Assembly constituency, situated on Bihar’s border with West Bengal. The West Bengal districts of Darjeeling, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur and Malda are in the vicinity of Kishanganj and these also happen to be the areas where the TMC has traditionally not been very strong.
This opens up space for the AIMIM and that’s why TMC wants to nip the AIMIM challenge in the bud.
Can AIMIM Make an Impact?
It is too early to say whether the AIMIM will be able to make a substantial dent in the TMC’s Muslim base.
However, it is true that the TMC is a far more resilient opponent for the AIMIM than the Congress.
Unlike the Congress, which is often seen prevaricating on issues related to minorities or reluctant to publicly be seen as pro-Muslim, the TMC has no such inhibitions.
Banerjee has been quite open about her attempts to woo Muslims. It is common to find her attending Muslim functions and one often sees posters of her making dua with her head covered.
Even in terms of giving representation to Muslims in the legislature and in the Cabinet, she has been more generous than her Left predecessors.
At the local level too, Muslims in West Bengal acknowledge that the Left didn’t give Muslims a chance to rise in the party beyond a certain point. This is not so in the TMC. As of now, Banerjee’s de-facto number two is Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim.
Owaisi’s main plank – of giving Muslims a voice – works far better against the Congress than against regional parties like TMC, RJD and SP, which have Muslims in prominent positions.
Therefore, Owaisi has changed track in Bengal and is focusing more on the backwardness of Bengal’s Muslims.
Despite the TMC’s resilience, the AIMIM’s model of expansion does give it a chance in West Bengal. So far, the party has successfully expanded in two states – Maharashtra and Bihar – outside of its core Hyderabad. Instead of putting up candidates in all seats in these states, the AIMIM cleverly chose Muslim dominated pockets such as the Seemanchal region in Bihar and Marathwada and Greater Mumbai in Maharashtra.
According to Owaisi, his aim is to have at least one AIMIM MLA in every state. As of now, the party isn’t aiming at a large-scale shift of Muslims.
This strategy worked well in the Aurangabad Lok Sabha seat in Maharashtra, which the AIMIM won in 2019. This was despite the fact that the consolidation of Muslims behind the Congress-NCP alliance – 86 percent Muslims in Maharashtra voted for the alliance – was the highest among all the states.
Similarly, AIMIM managed to win Kishanganj in the recent bypolls despite the fact that Bihar had seen a similar 77 percent consolidation of Muslims behind the RJD-led alliance earlier this year.
Therefore, the TMC’s resilience among Muslims doesn’t necessarily mean the AIMIM’s strategy won’t work. The TMC will have to be lucky in every seat while the AIMIM needs to get lucky in just one.
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